When we—the authors—were in our doctoral programs in the pre-internet days, we embraced our futures as traditional faculty members. We looked forward to teaching the disciplines we loved in live classrooms with interested students. We anticipated the fulfilling scholarly work we would pursue as part of our role as faculty members, the sage authority we would project to adoring students, and the wise counsel we would offer to colleagues as we fulfilled our service obligations to the university.
And, of course, we imagined all this playing out in the context of stable, tenure-track positions in fabled small, liberal arts institution in a quaint town just outside of an interesting large city.
More than just youthful naiveté was behind this graduate student’s ivy-covered fantasy. It was nurtured as well by fundamental assumptions about the life and role of the faculty member that would have been shared by our professors (however jaded). These assumptions about the role of the faculty member hardly fit the norm then. They certainly don’t now.
The students most of us teach, the institutions in which most of us work, and the economic and political realities constrain higher education—all this was changing even back then. Today, so-called “non-traditional” college students are the norm. Eighteen to twenty-two year olds living on campus and unencumbered by work or family now account for less than 20% of university students. Public institutions are scrambling to figure out ways to serve this new majority, the adult student.
And yet, we keep preparing faculty in the traditional way for roles that are increasingly anything but traditional. The culture perpetuated within most graduate programs is at odds with this new reality and leaves the newly minted PhD ill-equipped to take advantage of the new roles faculty will assume.
These ivy-covered fantasies turn out to have tenacious roots. A sense of what the role of the faculty “should” be plays just below the surface of many conversations about the direction and purpose of higher education. Internally, whether consciously or unconsciously, some of us use it to measure what our working lives have become. “I didn’t sign up for this,” we say, as we consider how to grade a stack of student essays, rife with a perplexing stew of grammatical and structural problems, lacking the most basic level of preparation we would expect (Based on our own experience, of course.).
Origins of the modern faculty role
Where does this traditional sense of the role of the faculty member come from? Is it an eternal verity? Was it perhaps forged in the intellectual heat of ancient Greece, given characteristic form in the great 12th century quasi-monastic institutions of Bologna and Paris, then finally democratized and professionalized in the 20th-century American university?
Or was it, as we would argue, a social construct of relatively recent historical origin?
Today’s faculty role in the U.S. is an amalgam of the influences of the more modern British and German conceptions of the University, with the addition of a particular American flavor added by the Morrill Act. In the mid-Nineteenth century, John Henry Newman articulated a view of a community of scholars in search of truth. Newman’s humanities-centric ideal was not so much replaced as subsumed within the Germanic model of a professionalized research function. This hybrid was in turn given a distinctly American stamp through the land-grant movement, designed to supply the technical and professional expertise for an expanding, industrializing nation.
Almost from the start, there were internal tensions in this Americanized hybrid. The difficulty of balancing research and teaching became a seemingly permanent fixture of faculty life–and a reliable preoccupation for essayists expounding on the parlous condition of higher education.
The role of the faculty as it “should” be continues to flourish (seemingly) at a handful of elite institutions. Some newly minted Ph.D.s do find research-focused positions with very little teaching involved as part of the position. However, most of the 2000+ US institutions of higher learning that are not among the elite handful do not possess the resources to follow these models. The truth is for many faculty members today, conflicts between the relative merits of teaching and research, and of the liberal arts and the more “practical” arts have created a confusing and often stressful identity.
Is there a better way? Can we rethink and refocus the various roles that have been grouped under the heading of “faculty” in ways that might in fact be more fulfilling, more professionally rewarding, and less fraught with internal contradictions?
Most faculty take positions in a variety of institution types with one thing in common—teaching is their key role. Most have not been given any instruction in how students learn or how curriculum might be optimally constructed. A way to refocus the role of the faculty, then, might be to treat the instructional role as a serious professional function—one for which structured training, informed by research, replaces anecdote, subjective experience, oral histories, legends, and rules of thumb.
We all start out by teaching our students as we were taught. We professionalize in our disciplines and are held accountable by professional standards. Yet we “teach” the discipline we understand deeply with little understanding of how to help our students thrive as learners in the discipline. It is a mismatch. With very little knowledge of how to teach, we prepare courses, lectures, and syllabi; we deliver lectures, hold discussions, and give exams; and we hope and believe our students are learning.
Because the faculty role is a bundle of connected tasks—developing curricula, mentoring and guiding students, designing exams and assessing—most of us do only some of these well. We labor through those we dislike. We may rarely engage in what we do best. Yet why is this peculiar bundle of tasks we call instruction bundled the way it is?
It is a question some observers began to explore in publications as early as the 1970s. At the time, the benefits of “unbundling” the instructional role was recognized as a way to improve student learning and, not incidentally, make the lives of busy faculty members more sane, focused and fulfilling. For years, experiments in unbundling occurred on the margins of mainstream academic life, mostly in institutions serving peculiar group known as “nontraditional” students. Then things began to change.
The present moment: university teaching circa 2013
We are living in a time when our pre-Internet graduate student fantasy of faculty seems further away than ever. Stability provided for decades by the land-grant movement is waning. Recognizing the need to serve the “new majority” of non-traditional and adult students, public universities are scrambling to compete on a new playing field. They are turning to such approaches as technologically-mediated education, online education, and competency-based education. With adaptive learning systems, more standardized online courses, and the growing acceptance that learning occurs outside the formal classroom.
Conversations about these new approaches have not always been as inclusive of faculty perspectives as they might be. It is unsurprising faculty are viewing these changes as an assault on their very identities.
Yet it is precisely in these converging changes we see the potential for reinventing and reimagining the role of faculty in positive ways. If we are resourceful and smart enough to seize it, the present moment offers an historic opportunity to unbundle the task of instruction and recast it as a variety of truly professionalized functions all faculty—not just those who are living out some version of our ivy-covered fantasy—will find enriching and fulfilling.
We are only at the beginning of this conversation. Let’s begin by imagining what university instruction might look like a decade from now. What follows is not a prediction but a possible scenario.
Fast-forward: university teaching in 2023
The currency of higher education had begun moving to “competencies” since the beginning of the century, and gradually quickened its pace during the first decade; now in 2023, competency-based approaches are well on their way to becoming the norm rather than the exceptional experiment. The industrial-era, Taylor-esque model of teaching in credit hours with seat time measurements is gone. The 2018 reauthorization of HEA cleared away any remaining regulatory hurdles to the rapid growth and public acceptance of competency-based approaches.
Faculty roles have shifted from the all-inclusive bucket of “teaching” to a variety of choices and functions based on their individual interests and passions. Those once-familiar fixtures of university life—the syllabus, the textbook, the lecture, the large live classroom—have all be transformed in significant ways. Some faculty continue to “teach” in live classrooms or online learning environments, but the teaching is now more episodic, focused on critical topics. Faculty-student and student-student exchanges and conversations are no longer confined within single-course silos, but occur in networks linking learners interested in shared subject areas and tackling similar issues.
The very notion of the course as the basic unit of the curriculum continues to undergo rapid evolution, as it has since 2012 and the rise of a phenomena rather quaintly used to be known as “MOOCs.” Few would recognize the term now or see the format as anything special; large online forums are now just one in a spectrum of course-like virtual spaces of various sizes and configurations in which students learn. In this diverse environment, a critical role of some faculty will be to serve as subject-matter experts with teams of designers, librarians, and others to construct learning environments—rich, engaging educational experiences that incorporate what in 2023 is an extensive body of research about how we learn.
Other faculty work as part of cross-functional academic teams to design degree programs for optimum student learning, helping to ensure curricula keep pace with changes in their subject area and maintain their relevance for employers. Such teams continually blur the boundaries among faculty members, administrators, and support staff.
Some faculty members choose to serve as professional assessors of student learning—not merely “grading,” but evaluating rich e-portfolios; and no longer doing so in isolation, but in consultation with colleagues, and informed by rich sources of data generated by sophisticated technologies for analyzing learning. Still others serve as mentors and coaches, guiding students through their programs of study, forming personal connections with learners and helping to prepare them for life beyond the classroom. Finally, many faculty are engaged in the scholarship of teaching and learning—and their contributions are now formally recognized and rewarded by their employers and by professional disciplinary associations.
Recognizing the growing array of job functions available to faculty members, a number of graduate programs have begun to incorporate professional training that stress broad familiarity with the various instructional roles available and encourage aspiring faculty to explore specializations among those roles. Hiring institutions have noted a new confidence among recent graduates (and to be honest some of us old-timers find these professionalized faculty instructors a touch intimidating).
Back to the present
Even if the scenario we have just sketched is dismissed as overly rosy, most will admit the iconic role of the faculty member is under pressure and there is no turning back the clock to the mid-twentieth century. Most will also agree traditional graduate training is not doing all it could to help aspiring graduates thrive in the emerging environment.
We believe the scenario above, or something very like it, is one worth striving for. We need a new map of university instruction that will allow faculty to spend more time focusing on what they do best, rather than doing what they have to do as part of a social construct we currently call the faculty role. Instead of lamenting the loss of ivy-covered fantasies, let’s work together to reengineer a variety of possible roles for faculty and to help them determine which they are best suited for and find most interesting.
Matthew L. Prineas, Ph.D.
Marie A. Cini, Ph.D.
Dr. Matthew Prineas is the assistant dean for communication, art, and humanities at University of Maryland University College (UMUC). In this position, he leads an academic department with over 28,000 annual enrollments and six fully online degree programs. He received his Ph.D. in English language and literature from the University of Rochester and an M.A. in English from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Marie A. Cini, Ph.D. is provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at University of Maryland University College. Her career has been focused on adult, online education and she has substantial experience in scalable, high quality program offerings. She has published and presented on the topics of authentic assessment and academic integrity, leadership development in adult learners, retention and adult learners, and the evolving faculty role. Her current professional work as well as scholarship is focused on the accelerating transformation in higher education.