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Teaching Administrators

Teaching Administrators

One of the nice features of the ad that attracted me to apply for the Provost position at Mason, lo these many years ago, was a stipulation that a successful candidate would continue teaching. I’m sure I could have talked my way out of this, but I didn’t want to and am very glad the encouragement was present. (In all honesty, the ad also specified technological competence, but no one ever asked me about this; it’s been much more constructive for me to teach.)

So I’ve taught at least one course a semester ever since I became Provost. I recommend this kind of combination to all administrators (with no expectation of additional pay – it should be part of the job), recognizing that there may be particular semesters where the press of other duties makes it impossible. Why the combination?

  1. Setting example. Our main job at universities is teaching. We always have some faculty, happy a minority although sometimes an intractable one, who define personal success by doing as little teaching as possible. Administrators should show by their own actions that teaching is a vital component at all levels. The same gesture also demonstrates to a wider public that the administration is eager to support teaching productivity as widely as possible.
  2. A signal to faculty. My relations with faculty groups go up and down a bit, but it has always helped that faculty know that I am in the classroom with them, wondering where the markers are or why the technology does not work better (but see above for one explanation).
  3. It allows contact with students. I have a student advisory group, and I see a few students from time to time, mostly those who’ve done very well and get awards or who have done very badly and bring gripes. But the opportunity to regularly see a wider swatch of students, even if we mostly stick to subject matter, strikes me as an important part of the job, making me, as an administrator, better informed and helping students feel they have some access to me.
  4. It’s fun. I really enjoy the contrast teaching provides, the opportunity to dive into something different from the daily fare. I had a dear colleague at my previous school, the Provost there, who worried that while setting aside class time on the schedule was not a big problem, having a chance really to get one’s head into the subject was difficult given the press of other issues. And this can be a challenge. Still, on balance, I find the chance to talk about one’s subject, even to do some grading, a refreshing and even invigorating complement to the normal day or week.
  5. Keeping options open. Many of us will not administer for the remainder of our professional lives. We may want to stay in academe after retirement for whatever set of reasons. I’ve known more than one case where this motive burned bright, but where many years absence from any classroom made it difficult for the individual to figure out what to do next. I strongly favor having an active, relevant skill set.

Admittedly there are tensions, which is why I have not tried to mandate teaching for all my deanly reports (though most of them teach at least sometimes). I find travel obligations the most guilt-laden issue, as I routinely have to miss a few classes particularly when I’m dealing with undergraduates and a more-than-once-a-week contact.

Still, I recommend a wider expectation of teaching performance than what normally now prevails. It’s good for the institution, it adds to administrative credentials, and, if we’ve chosen our careers aright, it’s just plain enjoyable and rewarding. As I gear up for 60 undergraduates this fall (I admit, perhaps a bit ambitious) I’m looking forward to the renewed engagement.