On Teaching, Mentoring, Balance, and Service
With summer almost here, I’m about to head into my last year as an academic. I’m “retiring” June 2022, although in truth I’ll work full time running my family’s winery and nonprofit, both built around the mission of providing training, jobs, and community for those with disabilities. As I transition from academics, Andrew and I are encountering many things we didn’t know were part of running a small business. This transition has prompted me to reflect on my transition from student to faculty member and, in turn, on how we prepare our graduate students for major life and career transitions.
In my case, I was fortunate. Judy Olson, my PhD advisor at Michigan State from 1996 to 1999, was and is amazing. Those three years were life-changing; Judy gave me one of the greatest gifts of my life—the courage to think. Her advising style was respectful and quietly demanding. She didn’t give answers, but provided guidance on how to discover them. Judy also instilled in her advisees the importance of service, something she epitomizes herself. I would not be AAG president if she hadn’t steered me in that direction. Judy and my department also gave me the opportunity to teach my own class, a large multi-section beast of a GIS class that was a major learning experience for students—and for me.
I was lucky to receive so much guidance, support, and preparation. Even so, I was thoroughly unprepared for life as a faculty member. Almost overnight, I went from being a student, focusing only on my own research, writing, and limited teaching to mentoring many students, teaching multiple classes, having much higher research expectations, juggling work-life balance in a whole new way, and… the service. So much service.
As I reflected on my major career transitions, I became curious about the student-faculty transition of others and whether those of us in PhD-granting programs are adequately preparing our students to launch into successful careers. So, I contacted multiple individuals in different positions and institutions (thank you all!) and asked them two questions: “What experience in your PhD program best prepared you for your career?” and “What didn’t you learn that you wish you had?”
Intriguingly, almost no one mentioned research training or field expertise in response to either question. Perhaps that’s because most people feel that their PhD program prepared them for future research and expected that to be the primary focus. Instead, answers focused on the preparedness (or non-preparedness) in two main areas: Teaching and Balance. I’ll provide some very brief highlights below. For a thoughtful and much deeper discussion of mentoring, see Kavita Pandit’s 2020 article Mentoring graduate students in an era of faculty career restructuring.
Teaching: While teaching loads vary by type of institution (e.g., teaching vs. research intensive, community college vs. 4-year college, etc.), all faculty I know teach. Moreover, even at a research-intensive institution, I spend more time talking with colleagues about teaching than I do about research. Likewise, I spend much more time working with graduate students than I do conducting literature reviews or launching new research. And, yet, most PhD students receive little to no formal teaching training, and many PhDs do not even experience teaching our own class until we become faculty members. This almost inevitably leads to us dusting off our old syllabi and notes taken as students, frantically updating content-related notes right up until class starts and—only occasionally—emulating what we believed were the best practices to help students learn. As one of my friends said: “I had no teaching experience. I mean none. The first time I taught was when I walked into a classroom of 80 students.”
There was one exception in the answers: a friend said he received an intense amount of formal pedagogic training. In summarizing his experience and its impact, he stated, “The professors were professional educators and the students were in-service teachers. Wow. I learned about pedagogy, good reflective teaching practice, and the language of assessment (student learning objectives, rubrics, normalizing grading expectations, etc.).”
What a show-off.
But… that really should be the standard we set for training the graduate students who will be the future educators in higher education.
Recent years—and particularly the Covid-year-of-teaching-remotely—have added a major issue that makes preparing graduate students for teaching far more complex. It’s true that I spend more time talking about teaching with my colleagues than I do about research. But, lately, I’ve spent even more time talking about issues of mental health and how to help guide students who experience issues across the spectrum of mild anxiety to catastrophic breakdowns. Thus, in addition to preparing our graduate students to use best learning practices, organize stimulating class materials, and prompt discussions, they now need to understand that their roles as teacher/mentors extend well beyond the basics of pedagogy. For many faculty, engaging with students as fellow humans brings challenges that can seem to blend roles of teacher and counselor. One of my friends summed up this challenge brilliantly: “Mental health training–this is, quite simply, the biggest challenge of my career. Teaching is care work, and yet we are rarely (if ever!) equipped with the adequate skills or support networks to deal with a range of mental health challenges in our students and colleagues.”
Let me be clear; I am NOT advocating that we be mental health professionals. But we must prepare our graduate students to know how to direct students with mental health issues to the appropriate people and centers and, equally important, how to avoid being personally ensnared in trying to solve those problems for the students.
Balance: Nearly everyone I know, including most of my friends and colleagues who responded to my email request for input, struggle with work-life balance and time management.
Achieving work-life balance has been a priority for me for about 10 years. I’m pretty much failing. But, here are the four things that I regularly try to accomplish:
- Set boundaries and work hours. I’ve actually been pretty good at this one because it involves cocktails. When Andrew first started as Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, I implemented evening cocktail hour. This is the moment when work stops.
- Make time for yourself, family, and friends. I’m super bad at the first, pretty good at the second, and marginal at the third.
- Work a job you love. This is absolutely one of the most important things. Because, even if you have achieved work-life balance, if you don’t like your job, you’re not in equilibrium. And, if you do find yourself out of balance, at least the time demands are something that you enjoy.
Finally, 4. accept that there is no constant nor perfect work-life balance.
The last one is especially important for me to focus on as I sit here at 5am working on my column because there’s not enough time in the day.
Solutions: Ideally, the teaching and work-life issues are ones we should be addressing within our programs. But in truth, most of us learn about these professional expectations and options by observing rather than through any formal training. Even observing is not effective in many cases. Many PhD programs are within R1 universities, but most PhD students get hired in other types of institutions; graduate students thus have little if any opportunity to learn about the kind of careers into which they will arrive. As a friend said, “Getting hired at a R1 and reproducing your advisor’s career is not possible or desirable for everyone.”
But we don’t have to do it all—there are external resources available. In fact, the AAG has taken a lead in providing something that is missing from most graduate programs: professional development.
Here’s where I will shamelessly plug an AAG program which a friend described as “miraculous and life-affirming.” The AAG’s Geography Faculty Development Alliance Early Career Workshop begins this week. If you miss it this year, be sure to put it on your calendar for next year. You will receive 5 days of formal training in pedagogy, professional development, and work-life balance.
The AAG also has taken a strong role in providing opportunities and training elsewhere. Both career workshops at annual and regional meetings and seminar series, such as the recent remote series organized by Ken Foote, provide excellent resources. In addition, more and more universities are providing workshops and resources on these topics for graduate students or new faculty; for example, the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oregon funds many of its new faculty to attend a year-long program run by the National Center for Faculty Diversity and Development. We thus don’t always have to develop these programs in our departments, but we should at a minimum make sure we are directing our graduate students or new faculty to these areas of training and learning.
On a different note: This is my last column as the virtual AAG President. Occasionally, people have asked me what it’s like being AAG President. Here are the top 3 Pros and Cons.
- I have had a chance to get to know some amazing people, especially AAG staff.
- I have surprised myself in how much I enjoyed writing these columns (and working on them with Andrew, who is a phenomenal editor). They have been a turn from my usual guarded privacy.
- I have learned so much more about geography, geographers, and programs around the world. I’m very grateful for all of the experiences that people have shared with me (even when the experiences weren’t positive).
- It didn’t help my time management or work-life balance. But, I loved the work.
- As I’ve shared with some people, my biggest regret during my term as President is that I never met another AAG member face-to-face (excluding my husband and UO colleagues). What a strange year to be in this role. I VERY much look forward to seeing a lot of you at future meetings
With my last column words, I’d like to thank everyone for trusting me with this position. I especially want to thank Dave Kaplan for sharing so much knowledge, patience, and time with me. You are a good mentor, Dave.
It’s been an honor to serve as AAG President.
AAG President and Professor at University of Oregon
lobben [at] uoregon [dot] edu
Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at lobben [at] uoregon [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion.