Tag Archives: paradigm shift

What My Promotion Means to Me

I have been promoted to Professor of Teaching! Woohoo! Since sharing the news about a week ago, I have received a wide variety of reactions from friends, family, and colleagues, on Twitter, Facebook, in person, and over email: congratulations ranging from ecstatic to calm; variations on “well, of course we all knew that was coming” and “aren’t you too young for that?”; as well as confusion (“weren’t you already a professor?” “didn’t you already have tenure?”) and inquiry (“does this mean your work will change?”)… and so on. Reflecting on this life transition, as well as such plurality of responses from others, has led me to this post. What does my promotion mean to me?

The Technical

  • The body of Teaching, Educational Leadership, and Service I have completed, as summarized in a dossier and CV I submitted one year ago (~200+ pages including appendices) has been reviewed and deemed worthy of promotion according to these criteria by individual reviewers outside UBC, teams of reviewers at the Departmental then Faculty of Arts then UBC-wide levels,  and the UBC President himself.
  • Here’s what I sent to my family: “Because my job is focused more on teaching than on research, my titles (starting with Instructor and then Senior Instructor with tenure, which I received in 2014) haven’t matched the usual “professor” titles (which start at Assistant Professor, then Associate Professor with tenure, then simply Professor). So although my job has been “equivalent” to a professor for a long time, my title has not reflected that. Until now. My new title, as of July 1, is Professor of Teaching!!! There are only about 35 or 40 of us with this title across the whole institution (about 1000 or more profs of various ranks)….”

The Little Things that Add Up to Feeling Valued and Respected and Authentic

  • When a student calls me “professor” — as has been happening throughout 12 years of teaching — for the first time it’s actually true. My title is Professor of Teaching. That voice inside my head that says “well, not really” can just shut up now.
  • For the first time, when someone at a conference asked today what I my role was at UBC, I had the option to quickly say “professor” or “professor of teaching” and they instantly knew what I meant. I didn’t have to choose between the generic “faculty” or fully explain my former title thusly: “Senior Instructor — which is UBC’s title for a tenured faculty member who specializes in teaching.” This new option gave me an exhilarating sense of authenticity.
  • For the first time, the institution at which I work formally recognizes that the work I do is Professorial. I feel a greater sense of respect for the work I do.
  • It means I don’t have to keep adding “(tenured faculty)” beside my title when I sign reference letters, so that the people I’m endorsing aren’t potentially harmed by my ambiguous title.
  • It means I’m done synthesizing my body of work in a package for my work colleagues to evaluate (unless I choose to do so for some particular purpose).

The Relieving + Scary + Overwhelming + Exciting

I have jumped through the last hoop that Academia has laid out before me.  Any title changes from now forward are because I’m actively choosing to shift my career focus. This is it. Since graduating from kindergarten, I have been in a seemingly (until now!) endless pursuit of the next diploma, the next degree (x3), the next title (x3)… but this is it. This is just starting to settle in. I am a person who still owns and can locate within about 10 minutes the achievement/outstanding student/excellence award plaques received in Grade 2 and Grade 8 and Grade 12. I am a clear example of how the education system can be considered a giant operant conditioning machine. But this is the last hoop. (If I want it to be, I suppose, but that’s different.)

This realization started out relieving, is currently sitting as rather terrifying, and I’m sure will shift more to exciting and empowering. Earlier today (at STLHE) I was at a session about mid-career faculty and a table-mate offered me this metaphor: I’ve been climbing a mountain and suddenly I’m staring at a plateau. This is helpful and overwhelming. I have 20+ years ahead — which is as long as it took me to get here since starting undergrad — to navigate without a finish line, a benchmark, a guidepost or a pathway provided by the educational institution. What do I do now? Of course I have courses and projects and priorities on the go, and perhaps more vision for the coming years than what I’m implying here. But for now, I’m allowing myself the discomfort of sitting at the top of the mountain, looking out onto a vast plateau.

Why did I choose Psychology?

Or did it choose me?

I’ve been reading Parker Palmer’s book, “The Courage to Teach,” and as I expected it’s sparking many ideas. I teach psychology… but how did I get here? Why did I major in psychology as an undergrad? When I was first introduced to psychology (by Dr. Chris Burris, who still teaches at SJU at Waterloo) I was fresh out of high school and had no idea what to expect from university, especially because I was (am) the first generation in my immediate family to pursue such a degree. What I found in psychology was knowledge about people that I could connect to. But much more important than that — for the first time in my life I learned I didn’t have to believe everything I was told about how people work. Psychology gave me the tools and concepts and a language to question what I formerly thought was some sort of truth. There was a method to test whether these ideas were correct or not — huzzah! Learning about psychology helped me see through advertising scams and times when the media misinterpreted research (correlation does not imply causation!). It helped me point out flaws and assumptions in the reasoning of others (and, with time and maturity, my own reasoning). This ability to question using an established language and methodology was an immensely powerful experience for me, one that I had come to take for granted.

On Teaching Psychology and Physics

What?  I’m a member of the weekly reading group at the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative . Today we discussed an article that empirically demonstrates performance gains (measured by scores on a standardized test) as a result of “Interactive Engagement” teaching methods, when compared with traditional lecture based instruction (Hake, 1998). A course was coded as using “Interactive Engagement” if the instructor used teaching methods aimed at promoting a conceptual understanding of the material via interactive activities accompanied by peer and instructor feedback through discussion. The sample was huge and diverse, involving 6542 students from 62 courses in a variety of high school, community college, and university settings. I learned today that this paper is a citation classic in physics, and one of the key drivers of physics teaching reform.

So What?  The data make a compelling case for incorporating interactive techniques in the classroom by linking them to learning gains. I already use many interactive techniques in my courses, largely because of more tangential research (and because I have more fun than when I lecture — and shouldn’t learning be fun?). Research in cognitive psychology shows that deeper processing results in greater comprehension and memory; deeper processing can be enhanced by interactive techniques.

More broadly though, as I learn more about physics education, I’m surprised to see a striking connection to problems we often face in psychology education. In both disciplines, it seems, people come to intro courses with a vast amount of experience interacting with our subject matter: physical objects and people, respectively. One of the aims of intro courses in both disciplines is to disabuse people of some prior assumptions about how the (physical or psychological) world works, and replace them with discipline-specific understanding and ways of knowing. People have some intuitions about the world that need to be adjusted — and sometimes rejected entirely — in order to understand the discipline. I’m reminded here of a message from Ken Bains’ book: set up an experience in which existing paradigms don’t work, and help build these back up.

Now What?  Knowing about this article makes me want to find more papers that test the hypothesis that interactive activities result in better learning — and to figure out how to measure that in my courses. I also plan to think very carefully about what kinds of activities are most useful for facilitating comprehension in my contexts (e.g., 500 students vs. 20 per course). 

Since realizing the parallel between physics and psychology instruction, I’m interested in learning more about physics pedagogical research and figuring out in what ways we are conceptually similar in our teaching-related challenges (and hence what I can pull from their literature). I’m also interested in figuring out what ways we (need to) differ as disciplines when teaching the next generation of scientists and informed citizens.