To preserve academic comfort zones, we must sometimes step out of them


I once served as an assistant to a professor whose approach to teaching consisted of bestowing a static set of knowledge on the ignorant.

Each week, I would meet with my undergraduate discussion groups and, because they were too overwhelmed with seemingly random information to make any sense of it, we would review the lecture material with a focus on understanding cause, effect and connections.

When the professor saw my positive teaching evaluations, his comment was: “Well, the students seemed to like you.” I now wish I had responded: “Well, yes, because I taught them to think about history instead of spewing it at them.”

That exchange has always stuck in my mind as an example of the damage that can be done to higher education when academics are invested more in being masters of knowledge than in helping others comprehend the significance of their field.

Now, as our colleges and universities grapple with layers of crises exacerbated by a pandemic year, academics also need to apply our expertise as teachers to addressing the challenges we all face.

Faculty, I would argue, must take an active role in the decision-making that will shape the future of higher education because without experienced and effective teaching many bold plans are just a house of cards. We know what works in a classroom, what goals are achievable in implementing curricular and technological innovation, and how much time and energy it takes to make them happen.

So how do we enter a conversation where we feel so invested but out of place?

While many academics see administrative work as beyond their competence, the fact is that we have skills perfectly suited to problem-solving. Effective teaching requires excellent communication, active listening, openness to new points of view, empathetic thinking and organised presentation of ideas. All of these skills are essential in addressing the challenges facing higher education.

I have learned to assert my own teaching expertise during my four years as director of Denison University’s major in global commerce, an interdisciplinary programme created by our faculty to investigate how social, cultural, political, environmental and economic factors shape global trade and commerce.

As a historian of the Protestant Reformation, I was diving into unfamiliar waters when I started attending meetings with university leadership, board members, alumni and local professionals – many with years of experience in business and eager to offer their ideas and expertise. Relying exclusively on faculty rhetoric about the inherent value of intellectual pursuits, or getting defensive in the face of new ideas, was not going to cut it. I had to learn quickly to listen to a wide range of concerns and to communicate our faculty vision persuasively to people with many perspectives on our school and on the future of higher education more broadly.

With the help of my colleagues, I soon realised that the most valuable tools I brought to the table were founded in my teaching instincts and experience: clear communication, openness to multiple points of view, ability to adapt rapidly, and a dedication to always, always articulating the value of our intellectual mission at a liberal arts school.

Did my colleagues and I sometimes encounter scepticism from administrators and non-academic collaborators? Yes. Did we have to work hard to overcome self-doubt in the face of others’ insistence that we should be taking our cues from people who were highly successful in their business-related careers? We did.

Did we sometimes feel that it would be easier to just step aside and let our new programme follow a path away from the faculty vision? More than once.

But the more we have embraced our authority as expert teachers, the better we have become at navigating these challenges and at collaborating to build a programme founded in the academic and teaching traditions of the liberal arts.

Global commerce is now a flourishing, fully interdisciplinary, humanities-based major pursued by 200 students. Faculty and staff have worked hard to articulate our vision of the programme as something that is not “Denison’s vision of a business major” but is far better precisely because it is not a business major. As a result, administrative colleagues have embraced our messaging and the reality of our programme as a liberal arts major rather than a pre-professional programme.

As this experience demonstrates, if we are to preserve the spaces where we already feel comfortable as academics – reflection, intellectual enquiry, deep reading, intensive research and critical exploration of ideas – we must sometimes step beyond those spaces and participate in leadership discussions.

In other words, we must also adapt the skills we have developed in the classroom to our interactions with faculty colleagues, administrators and potential supporters beyond our own campuses. To do this well, we must recognise that we are not always at our best in our exchanges with administrators and non-academics – and learn to do better.

At the same time, institutional leaders and administrators must recognise that if they do not create spaces to incorporate our teaching expertise into strategic planning and institutional innovation, the future of higher education looks grim – shiny on the outside but without the nuts and bolts that will hold it all together and give students the educations they need to face the future.

Author Bio: Karen E. Spierling is Professor of History and Director of the global commerce programme at Denison University in Ohio.