Academic administrators should teach. I suggest that they consider teaching in first-year and other gateway courses to support these important parts of the curriculum.
First-year courses and gateway courses in the disciplines are extremely important. They occur early in students’ academic careers, helping them acquire an intellectual foundation and form a sense of self that will serve them throughout their academic careers. These courses are opportunities for the development of skill in writing, analytical thinking, understanding complexity and ambiguity, and problem solving. For those students who are particularly at-risk, it is a time when thoughtful instructors can help them overcome the challenges of being college students and form a foundation for success.
The main difficulty with gateway courses, particularly first-year courses, is staffing. Many faculty members are trained to be experts in their disciplines and would prefer to teach upper-level courses in their own departments. The interdisciplinary nature of first-year courses requires teaching unfamiliar materials. In addition, these courses require faculty to teach such skills as writing and analysis of unfamiliar problems, activities for which they often feel unprepared. The result is a sense of unhappiness that often borders on fear. Gateway courses in the disciplines, such as introductory psychology, are also difficult. They tend to have large class sizes, with enrolled students who vary in level of preparation or interest.
There are many ways to address these issues. A good faculty development program can help faculty learn relevant content for materials outside their disciplines. Help with pedagogical advances can be provided. In many cases there are guidelines for the distribution of courses offered by departments. Some institutions rely on adjuncts for such courses, releasing full-time faculty for other teaching assignments. I wish to focus on one particular idea: academic administrators taking the lead in offering a section of first-year or other gateway courses. This need not be every term or even every year, but regular teaching of such courses has many benefits, both for the individual and the institution.
Leadership. When the dean teaches a section of a first-year or other gateway course, this signals to the faculty that such classes are valued. This can be helpful in creating respect for such courses across the campus.
Shared Responsibility. The faculty can see that the administrators are willing to take on direct responsibility for the curriculum and do some of the same work that they do. This helps break down the sense of hierarchy that often troubles academic institutions. If the leaders are willing to share responsibility, then they are “one of us.” There is a great deal of concern for shared governance in the modern academy. This approach can be called “shared teaching,” a concept that parallels “shared governance.”
Familiarity with Students. Administrators who have great responsibilities for admissions, support services, and teaching development programs can benefit from knowing the characteristics of students first-hand. Issues such as student anxiety, cognitive challenges, and the needs of inclusive pedagogy are better understood from direct experience with the students themselves.
New Ideas for Pedagogy. Experimentation with new pedagogies is quite common. The number of recently published books on how students learn makes clear that we are trying to construct pedagogies that are effective. Teaching a gateway course is an opportunity to try new ideas for teaching and to evaluate them.
Intellectual Stimulation. Administrators spend a great deal of time on budgeting, hiring, personnel procedures, report preparation, and meeting with constituencies such as trustees. These activities are critical and a good administrator who handles such issues with skill can make an important contribution to their institution. But teaching students at the beginning of their careers provides a different kind of activity—an intellectual stimulation that is refreshing. Those moments when you are in a classroom with students are a time when you are not interrupted by questions such as how to balance the budget or deal with a personnel dispute. Years ago a colleague commented to me, “The classroom is a relief.” This is perhaps an overstatement, but it does make the point. More recently, another colleague pointed out that Plato’s Republic and Natasha Trethewey’s collection of poems about growing up in the south, entitled Native Guard, are both about justice. This insight was fascinating, one easier to understand after teaching in my institution’s first year program and interacting with both texts.
It’s Fun. Perhaps the most important reason for teaching in gateway courses is that it is satisfying. The other reasons are in a sense subsets of this one. Most academic administrators started as faculty—faculty who teach. The chance to return to that beginning, if only for a few hours each week, is a wonderful way to maintain enthusiasm and vitality.
Gateway courses are at the heart of what we do. If academic administrators can be directly involved in them, we shall all benefit.