It seems only natural that faculty members would learn from and help one another. Unfortunately, working together on teaching seems more the exception than the rule, whether because we are too busy to lend a hand or too proud to ask for one. It doesn't need to be that way.
Educators can generally be categorized in three groups: young guns fresh from graduate school, wily (yet possibly battle-weary) veterans, and industry outsiders full of practical experience but new to the classroom. All have strengths that can help shore up the others' weaknesses.
Young Guns. Fledgling faculty members tend to be energetic, enthusiastic, up-to-date in their fields, and perhaps a bit brash, especially when compared with more experienced professors. Quick to empathize with students, who are not much younger than themselves, these new kids on the block are inexperienced in teaching and possibly afraid of not measuring up to their older peers.
New educators also have to contend with many demands on their time as they start research programs, search for funding sources, work with graduate students, publish articles—all with an eye toward the tenure decision looming in the distance.
Wily Veterans. Most experienced faculty members have developed teaching styles that work for them, but they do occasionally suffer from burnout. Though comfortable with the many nitty-gritty aspects of teaching, their age, or possibly old-fashioned attitudes, may make it harder to develop rapport with students. They are probably not up-to-date outside their areas of expertise, and often find their time eaten away by committee work or old obligations they are unable or unwilling to drop.
Industry Engineers. Making the leap to academe can be a real challenge for members of this small third group. Though neophytes in teaching, their real-world experience is especially valuable in design courses and for advising students. They often experience culture shock commensurate with the length of time they have spent in industry—expecting, but not always finding, professional behavior from students.
Because their strengths and weaknesses are complementary, these three groups need to find ways to work together. Formal faculty orientation workshops are effective, especially on topics such as campus policies, teaching and learning principles, academic advising, and research proposal writing.
Formal mentoring programs also work, provided the mentors and proteges meet regularly and frequently. Inexperienced faculty members benefit even more when matched with both a teaching and a research mentor. To avoid potential conflicts of interest at tenure time, Robert Boice, in The New Faculty Member (Jossey-Bass, 1992), recommends that mentors and proteges be from different disciplines. And remember, mentoring relationships don't just benefit the proteges. New faculty members' energy, enthusiasm, and ideas can invigorate even the most experienced educators.
There are many other, less formal ways to help one another. For example, visiting another professor's classes to observe and provide feedback should be common, but isn't. Take the initiative and invite another professor to watch you in action—perhaps one of the newer faculty members who can offer thoughts on making courses more industry-relevant.
Syllabi, course outlines, tests, assignments, and perhaps even course notes are useful to any professor teaching a course for the first time. New faculty members often may not ask their fellow teachers for these materials out of a fear of being turned down or of seeming unprepared. So don't wait to be asked—send a note or an e-mail offering your course material. Providing more continuity in the curriculum helps students as well as teachers.
Also, when you become more comfortable working with members in the other groups, consider combining your talents and try team-teaching.
These strategies will promote a healthier faculty community, one that acknowledges teaching as both an important and a sometimes difficult aspect of a professor's duties. We are truly all in this together, and sometimes the most important thing experienced faculty members can do for new educators is to show that they care and want them to succeed.
Phillip Wankat is a chemical engineering professor at Purdue University; Frank Oreovicz is an education communications specialist at Purdue's chemical engineering school. The authors welcome readers' feedback. You can reach them via e-mail at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.