Academic journal article The Journal of Faculty Development

Sink or Swim: The Climate for Teaching as Viewed by Award-Winning Teachers

Academic journal article The Journal of Faculty Development

Sink or Swim: The Climate for Teaching as Viewed by Award-Winning Teachers

Article excerpt

This study explores the climate for teaching at a major Midwest research university. Teaching climate is generally defined as the shared perceptions of current organizational processes that affect the institutional environment for teaching (Peterson et al, 1991; Tagiuri, 1968). Three types of distinguished teaching awards were used to select participants. From that population a random sample of thirteen participants were selected for semi-structured interviews. Analysis of these interviews revealed three central themes descriptive of the current climate: insufficient recognition of the scholarship of teaching, lack of systematic opportunities to improve teaching, and variable administrative commitment and support.

"I think it's a sense of...you're in this on your own; sink or swim. I happen to be a strong swimmer."

- faculty member

The role of American faculty is in a state of change, and many feel as if they have been thrown into the deep end of the pool (Schuster & Finkelstein, 2006). As faculty devel- opers we are often called in to rescue faculty who are barely treading water. We can serve as institutional advocates to buffer them from some of the external pressures, by taking a proactive role in understanding the institutional supports and signals that affect their experience. The importance of understanding the faculty member's perspective is espe- cially relevant as many public institutions are increasing pressure to produce research (Frost & Teodorescu, 2001). This study provides unique insights from faculty members who lost significant institutional support after the closing of a long standing Center for Teaching and Learning.

This study also provides insight to the tough choices many administrators face within the changing academic environment. Specific factors such as the downturn economy, public demand for accountability and explod- ing technological advances place increasing pressure on higher education institution's to make choices that af- fect the implementation of the institutions mission. Not unrelated, further pressure on the mission comes from high stakes competition for undergraduate enrollment and institutional prestige (Kronman, 2007; Lewis, 2006). These pressures challenge post-secondary administrators to make decisions on what type of faculty effort to reward, while concerns over market sustainability create ambigu- ous expectations for the professorate. There are only so many hours in a day, and some argue that teaching and research require the use of differing skill sets (Hattie & Marsh, 1996). Even though some of the skills are the same, a choice of how to prioritize time and energy needs to be made. How do these external and internal pressures effect the choices faculty make between dividing time between research, service, or teaching? And how might the insti- tutional and department climate affect faculty members' focus on teaching? How do centers for teaching and learn- ing contribute to a supportive climate for teaching?

Purpose of the Study

Research universities, in particular, face the chal- lenge of both expanding the horizons of knowledge and transferring knowledge to the next generation. Todd Git- lin (1998), a scholar and social critic, recently commented, "Little attention has been paid to the strongest reason to cultivate knowledge that is relatively enduring: (that is) to anchor a high-velocity, reckless, and lightweight culture whose main value is marketability" (p. B4). Historically, the university has served as a cultural anchor for society in the midst of change (Gumport, 1997), primarily through the vehicle of teaching.

This case study describes the present institutional teaching climate at one research university from the per- spective of teaching award winners. Teaching climate is generally defined as the shared perceptions of current organizational processes that affect the institutional en- vironment for teaching (Peterson et al. …

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