Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Other Voices: "The Terrors and Triumphs of Teaching in a One-Person Department"

There doesn't seem to be much literature on the topic of teaching in a small department, but the anthology Teaching in the Small College: Issues and Applications edited by Richard A. Wright and John A. Burden (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986) seems a fairly good repository of some reflections on small college teaching generally.

James K. McReynolds' contribution, "The Terrors and Triumphs of Teaching in a One-Person Department" is a perceptive first-person account of what it is like to be in this singular (!) situation. The terrors are common enough--being overburdened, underappreciated, and isolated--but I find that his discussion of the triumphs worth focusing on. [My term hasn't started yet, so for now I have a positive outlook on life; maybe when the first stack of grading comes due, I'll change my tune.]

McReynolds claims that the triumphs of teaching in a one-person department
emerge in three areas: (1) curricular constuction and control, (2) institutional advantages, and (3) student development. (18)
Regarding (1), McReynolds points out that in singelton departments (and this may go for 2- and 3-person departments as well) faculty exert comparatively more control over the curriculum than in larger departments, and the sense of control over the curriculum is something to be valued. McReynolds suggests creating flexible courses, the specific content of which can be varies from year to year, so that faculty can experiment either with content or pedagogical methods without having to visit the college curriculum committee every term. With fewer people looking over one's shoulder, one is freer to try out new things in the classroom, and, perhaps, teach courses that merge with one's research interests.

McReynolds also recommends (and this was suggested by some respondents to my survey) using more active-learning pedagogies. This may enable faculty members to, among other things, more readily teach courses in which they are not expert and deal with a heavy course load. [The literature on active learning is rich--I shan't recapitulate it here.]

Regarding (2), McReynolds says this:

The small college experience offers a wonderful opportunity to feel a deep sense of community--that one is supportively and constructively involved in the life of the college. A professor can have a substantial impact not only in his or her department, but in the institution in general. (20)

This may be true in the small college, but, clearly, not every small department exists in a small college, so this claim may be true for some, but not all, of those of us teaching in small departments.

Finally, regarding (3)--student development--McReynolds anticipates some of the remarks made by survey respondents regarding the value of being closely involved in the growth and development of one's students. I have found this to be the most significant aspect of thriving in a small department: faculty who are genuinely interested in being instrumental in the academic, emotional, and intellectual development of their students will do well in small departments. Not only is it the sort of attitude that chairs, deans, and hiring committees look for in new faculty, but it is one of the rewards of being in such a position. That is to say, if you do not get satisfaction from being involved in student development in this way, you may not enjoy life in a small department, as the satisfaction that comes from such involvement is one of the chief benefits offered to us.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Data Analysis: Ways of Recruiting and Retaining Majors

I've done an examination of the many helpful suggestions that survey participants made in response to the question of how they recruit and retain majors. The full list of comments is available here, but what follows is (my admittedly amateur) content analysis of those responses.

In order to recruit and retain majors, here is what survey participants suggest (in order of frequency)

1. Create high-quality courses, especially introductory level courses (15)
2. Hold outside-of-class social events with students (10)
3. Ensure that students can double-major, combining philosophy with some other field (7)
4. Connect philosophy courses with the general education program (7)
5. Engage in advertising via majors fairs, high school visits, brochures, etc. (7)
6. Promote the value of a phil. major for law school or other (non-philosophy) grad programs (6)
7. Close faculty-student relationships (4)
8. Personally inviting students to major (4)
9. Be flexible with the major requirements (4)
10. Give public lectures on campus (4)

It seems that having a respectable number of philosophy majors (and minors) is particularly important for a number of reasons. More majors means more upper level courses which means (as will be discussed in a future post) the ability for faculty teaching in small departments to connect their resesarch with their teaching, and this is an oft-recommended way to get research done while teaching a heavy course load. Moreover, in an economic situation where administrations may be looking to cut those departments that have only a handful of majors, recruiting more majors may be necessary for the very existence of the department itself.

Have other folks found creative solutions to the problem of recruiting and retaining majors?

Monday, August 17, 2009

What kind of person does well in a small philosophy department?

Is it possible to look at the survey data below and construct a description of the sort of person who would do well at a small philosophy department? Well, the data was hardly gathered from a scientifically respectable sample, and, even if it were, it would be a precarious endeavor to generalize from that data to an "ideal" faculty member in a small department, but perhaps looking at the concerns and, particulary, the advantages, it might be possible to make a first attempt.

Picking up on the questions I asked in the last post, I'm thinking about this question in the context of new folks on the job market. If you want to succeed in a small department, you should be the kind of person who...

...is happy putting teaching ahead of scholarship on your priority list
...can handle a heavy teaching load
...is content to be in a department that may not enjoy prestige on campus
...is content to be a member of a "service" department--i.e., a dept. that serves other majors.
...enjoys forming close mentoring relationships with undergraduates
...can teach a wide variety of courses
...is content to be the only person on your campus who works in your field
...can be happy without much, if any, intellectual engagement with campus colleagues
...can find intellectual stimulation interacting with people from different disciplines
...is able to recruit majors, primarily through teaching engaging and interesting courses
...is willing to advise a philosophy club or honorary society
...is willing and able to serve on college committees and in other service capacities
...derives satisfaction from seeing students learn
...doesn't require professional accolades or prominence in the discipline
...enjoys learning about areas of philosophy you've never studied before
...enjoys the freedom to create new courses
...enjoys seeing the same students in multiple courses

Again, this is a rough list, and the imprecision of social science has to be borne in mind here. Doubtless there are people who thrive in small philosophy departments who have few, if any, of the above characteristics. But given what people in the survey said about what the advantages were, and what their concerns were, this seems to be at least a fair first pass at the sort of qualities needed by people who will be content working in small departments.

Other suggestions?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Preparing graduate students for jobs at small departments

My first year on the job market, I was very close to getting a campus visit at a small (2-person) philosophy department at a good liberal arts school in the midwest. I wasn't invited to campus, and the department chair told me that the reason was that I did not have any experience at a small college: I didn't attend a small college as an undergraduate and, clearly, as a graduate student I was at a large university. It being my first year on the job market, I had no experience teaching at such colleges. I can't remember his exact words, but his point was that working in a small college, as a member of a small department, requires an understanding of the nature of small colleges and since I didn't have that, I wasn't going to be invited to campus.

At the time, I thought this the height of injustice, but now, having worked at a small college for 10 years, I can see that he was right. The demands of working at a small college require a certain set of skills, and, unless a job candidate has small college experience, it can be difficult to tell if he or she has those skills.

All of this leads me to ask what steps, if any, are graduate departments taking to prepare their students for jobs at small colleges? What suggestions do faculty who teach at small colleges have for our colleagues in Ph.D. programs? What would you like to see in potential job candidates? What do job candidates think about their preparation for jobs at small colleges? Do you feel well-prepared for such jobs? What could be done to make you more prepared?

I can offer one suggestions--perhaps readers will have others. For the last few years I have been helping out the big university down the road from mine by mock interviewing their students as they enter the job market. Very few, if any, of the faculty there have experience at a small college, so while they conduct mock interviews from the perspective of a research university, they are unable to accurately simulate what an interview with a college like mine would be like. So I come in and mock interview the students. This has been, from the reports of both faculty and students, incredibly helpful. Are others doing anything like this?

Welcome to the Small Philosophy Departments Blog

In the spring and summer of 2008 I conducted a survey of faculty working in departments that consisted of three or fewer full-time philosophers. I called these "small philosophy departments". Survey respondents were asked to comment on the challenges and advantages of life in a small philosophy department, and I'm using this blog as a forum both to present the results and to take up discussion of the issues. The results are preliminary, and I plan to do some further analysis of the data presented here. I hope this will be a forum for faculty working in small philosophy departments to engage with each other and share advice, best practices, and stories of our success.

The statistical analysis below was performed by Dr. Michele Acker of the Psychology Dept. at Otterbein College.

Please feel free to comment on the posts below, which encapsulate the survey data. I plan further posts with content analysis of the comment sections and with links to resources that can help faculty who work in small departments to thrive.

Survey Results: Concerns

Survey respondents were given a list of 14 possible issues of concern for faculty teaching in small philosophy departments. They were asked to rank these issues on a scale of 1-5 where 1 indicated "no concern at all" and 5 indicated a "high priority concern" Here is the list of issues, along with the mean scores, standard deviations, and number of respondents for each item. They are listed in order from most concerning to least concerning.

For each of the concerns listed here, respondents were asked to indicate how, if at all, they had addressed these various issues. Clicking on the concern listed below will take you to a separate post that lists those responses.

Respondents were also prompted to list any other concerns that they had, and a list of these other concerns can be seen here.

Concern N Mean S.D.
1 Finding time and resources to support scholarly work 107 4.12 1.007
2 Recruiting and retaining majors 97 3.59 1.214
3 Convincing undergraduates of the value of philosophy 108 3.35 1.146
4 Excessive teaching responsibilities 108 3.25 1.382
5 Creating a sense of community among majors & minors 103 3.15 1.115
6 Acquiring resources from college administration 108 3.13 1.305
7 Effectively preparing majors for graduate school in philosophy 99 3.08 1.104
8 Excessive college service responsibilities 107 3.02 1.251
9 Convincing administration of the value of philosophy 107 3.01 1.450
10 Effectively teaching courses outside one's area of expertise 100 2.77 1.230
11 Convincing faculty colleagues of the value of philosophy 109 2.68 1.353
12 Excessive departmental service responsibilities 108 2.54 1.286
13 Finding faculty to teach philosophy courses 101 2.44 1.244
14 Managing interactions with any non-philosophers in the department 79 2.16 1.245


Survey respondents were given a list of potential advantages to working in a small philosophy department. They were asked to rank these issues on a scale of 1-5 where 1 meant "I don't like this at all" and 5 meant "I love this" Here is the list of potential advantages, along with the mean scores, standard deviations, and number of respondents for each item. They are listed in order from most loved to those seen as least advantageous.

Respondents were also prompted to list any other advantages they enjoyed as members of small philosophy departments, and those other advantages can be seen here.

1Having the freedom to create new courses924.260.982
2Knowing the Majors and Minors well924.230.891
3Having the same students in multiple courses923.990.989
4Having the ability to teach a wide range of courses973.931.092
5Having the ability to effect change in one's department933.711.079
6Having fewer departmental administrative obligations613.431.087
7Interactions with non-philosophers in the institution993.410.904
8Interactions with fellow philosophers783.331.181
9Being a/the prominent "campus philosopher"903.061.193
10Having the opportunity to teach non-philosophy courses722.971.267
11Interactions with non-philosophers in the department642.941.037
12Having a small number of philosophy majors.922.531.296