Thursday, November 1, 2012

Redefining the Role of the Professor

Yesterday, as I prepared to talk to my Rome class about my job and their job in this thing we call education, it occurred to me that part of the problem is my job title.  I am an Associate Professor of Classics.  I am paid a good salary to profess my knowledge of Classics in a range of environments, including the classroom.  Or, at least, I used to be.  Now, though, I'm not so sure about anything.  In a world where higher education is changing, particularly at budget-challenged state institutions, it's pretty clear that the job description of professors will change no matter how much we kick and scream (students aren't the only ones who resist the changes in learning strategies that blended and flipped classes demand).  We might still do a fair amount of professing, but it will be in recordings for our students to watch on their own time.  Rather, our job will be to create a range of learning tools, including more interactive activities; to teach our students how to use those tools wisely and well; to provide structure and incentives for their learning (i.e. formative assessments); and to give them regular feedback on their learning and learning strategies.  This is an entirely different job description than the one I had when I arrived at UT in 2002, but it's the reality of higher education in 2012 and beyond.

These days I shrink away from calling myself a professor in the context of teaching.  I prefer to call myself a facilitator of learning.  When I'm the professor, students expect me to profess and they expect to passively consume what I am professing, perhaps to write down my professions, and then to  regurgitate them to me as accurately as possible on an exam.  A big reason I started to explore other models of teaching a large enrollment course was simply that I was tired of giving students As for being able to do nothing more than repeat back to me what I said in lecture--but also feeling that I couldn't expect them to apply that knowledge if I wasn't providing opportunities for them to do so in the classroom.  Certainly, I want my students to have a firm grounding in the facts of Roman history and culture.  But, to my mind, my job has to go beyond professing and extend to prodding my students to play with that knowledge, to use it to do higher-order thinking.  It doesn't take someone with a PhD in Classics and a decade of teaching experience to do a decent lecture on the basic facts of Roman history (though, admittedly, delivering an organized, clear, and carefully plotted lecture aimed at an introductory level audience is also much harder than it looks).  It's also the fact that, in the not distant future, someone will make a set of lectures based on our course textbook (Boatwright et al.'s A Brief History of the Romans) available for free--it's just a matter of time.  If all I can do is profess, then I'm going to be out of a job.  Or, at least, my graduate students will be.

Fortunately, I can do a lot more than profess.  I can facilitate learning.  I can create learning tools besides textbook-based lectures.  Really, even though my students don't quite realize this right now, THAT is what they are paying for.  Of course, these radical changes in teaching mean that universities like UT are going to have to invest serious money in retraining their work force.  In re-designing my class, I have worked with a team of learning specialists and IT folks, but have also done an enormous amount of work on my own.  All in all, it will be 6 months of intensely focused work and more time fine-tuning and sustaining the class.  I do believe that the spring version will address the most significant issues that came up this fall.   Of course, to address those issues means spending the break between semesters working intensively to create additional resources for the students to help them manage the demands of the course.  .

For me, it's a really exciting time to be an academic.  I like solving problems, I like teaching, and I am excited about the conversations and changes going on in education right now.  I think there's every reason to be optimistic about the future of higher education in Texas.  At the same time, it's important for everyone to grasp that these changes will also be challenging, for faculty and for students; there will be resistance from both expected and unexpected quarters.  We are entering a period of experimentation and that's a great thing.   It should be encouraged and supported.  We won't get it exactly right the first time, but as more people start experimenting, we will learn more quickly what works and doesn't work in general; and specifically here at UT with our student body and our particular types of courses.

Most importantly, though, we faculty are no longer just going to be professors.  We are going to be designers, problem-solvers, coaches, and facilitators as we encourage our students to become "successful users" of our courses.  What will a successful user look like?  That will be the student whose learning improves and who is able to demonstrate a mastery of the course objectives.

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