As the leaves
turn to autumn colors across the nation's engineering school
campuses this year, look carefully and you should notice a lot
of gray as well. Nearly one third of the nation's full-time
faculty members are now aged 55 or olderup from barely 25
percent a decade ago.
no one's getting any younger, it's a phenomenon that
will only grow in coming years as colleges and universities reap
the benefits and bear the burdens of a surge in faculty hiring
in the 1960s and 1970s to accommodate the first wave of the Baby
Congress amended the Age Discrimination in Employment Act in 1986
to eliminate forced retirement at age 65 for most jobs, it allowed
academic institutions to extend mandatory retirement for tenured
faculty members until the age of 70. That exemption ended in 1994,
and now colleges and universities are beginning to feel the effectsconfronting
the opportunity and obligation of virtual lifetime employment.
administrators are finding ways to balance the benefits of experience,
knowledge, and wisdom provided by older faculty members with the
occasional need to help faculty remain innovative, creative, and
exciting in their classroomsparticularly in undergraduate
teaching. With many universities and colleges instituting post-tenure
review, tying merit pay raises and awards to periodical evaluations
of teaching performance, it is becoming even more important for
senior faculty to keep their teaching skills sharp. Administrators
say experienced faculty are often the first to identify the problems.
older faculty members are so set in their ways they're not
interested in changing anything, observes George Pearsall,
who retired in June after 34 years as a professor of mechanical
engineering at Duke University.
of senior faculty can often be more demanding than that of younger
colleagues, with the never-ending duties of teaching, faculty
committee work, and student advisory responsibilities. Add to
that the time and intellectual energy of maintaining research,
and the candle is burning at both ends. You just don't
have the same energy at 75 that you do at 35, says J.E.
Stine, now retired from the mechanical engineering department
at the University of Texas at Austin.
universities can help by emphasizing good teaching from the beginning
of one's career. Nobody is overtly taught to teach
and I always found that bizarre, says Stine.What many
engineering professors saw when they were in school was a person
lecturing and so that's what they did when they started teaching.
Karron Lewis, of the Center for Teaching Effectiveness at the
University of Texas in Austin, Stine organized and directed teaching
seminars for new faculty at the University of Texas in Austinand
developed a course for experienced faculty as well when over 200
of them expressed interest. Now in its 16th year, the two-day
seminars attract about 120 experienced facultyabout 20 of
them from the engineering schooldiscussing topics such as
teaching problem solving, philosophies of grading, leading discussions,
and lecturing more effectively.
in a research university, the motivation and reward structure
may not be focused on teaching. If all the money comes from
research, why spend time on teaching? observes Lewis. She
says her center gets four or five calls a week from institutions
interested in starting programs such as the one she co-directs.
teaching seminar is only a start in confronting the demands of
time and energy. Pearsall of Duke says that experienced faculty
members sometimes permit themselves to be in a rut and get
comfortable in that rut, adding: I think it's
a natural human phenomenon. Teaching is an easy place to dig a
hole for yourself.
seems to be less of a common denominator in those pitfalls than
does attitude and action. Pearsall, honored at the age of 68 with
the Distinguished Faculty Teaching Award at Duke, says there are
specific rules a professor can personally set to stay sharp and
productive as a teacher. First and foremost is to think of teaching
as an engineering challenge. For me, treating teaching as
an engineering design problem has ensured that I never finish
trying to improve the design, just as any good design engineer
continues to tweak his creation, Pearsall says.
When Pearsall found that younger faulty members were approaching
him to ask, What do you do that's different?
Pearsall helped his department chairman, Hadley Cocks, develop
an informal seminar that enlisted some of the best and brightest
faculty at Duke to share some of their ideas on how to teach.
says that the same approach that makes a good engineer makes a
good teacher. Avoid tunnel visiondesigning or teaching
the first thing that comes into your mind, he advises. Once
you realize what it is you're trying to get across, come
up with at least three different ways of doing it. Not everybody
learns the same way.
also advises colleagues to take risks and allow students to see
missteps in the classroom. I think one of the things that
makes professional education sterile, whether it be law or engineering
or medicine, is that professors know how to solve all these problems
so they just show students what the right way is, Pearsall
says. Going into class with a problem you don't know the
answer to and letting the students see you stumble,
can pay off.
Pearsall offers is to audit a course on a subject about which
you know nothing. If you're going to be a good teacher,
you have to continue to be a good student in a class or seminar.
down in stale research can dull a professor's performance.
Pearsall found that his expertisefailure analysis
ceased to be a high priority with Pentagon funding agencies. It
was like, Yeah, that's old hat,' recalls
Pearsall. Funding agencies have egos just like faculty do,
he says. They want to be credited with funding some new
area. I decided, hell, I'm going to do what I can do based
on my experience, helping younger faculty members in their research,
bringing my professional experience into the classroom through
teaching and having a consulting practice on the side because
it's fun. This year, in the first year of his formal
retirement, Pearsall and a former student received a major research
a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT for 41 years, uses
the same approach. Sponsoring agencies tend to bias in the
direction of the experienced, well-known people, if they have
new ideas and produce new intellectual content. There are fashions
in the research business, and one of the things that you have
to do these days is to understand what people are willing and
able to pay you to do.
with years of experience in their fields find it helpful to distinguish
between the rewards of teaching undergraduates and graduates.
Kerrebrock won an undergraduate teaching award at MIT last yearfive
years after his formal retirement. For elderly facultyI
guess I'm one of thoseit's important that there's
a distinction between teaching as such and intellectual innovation,
says Kerrebrock. Normally at MIT we tend to connect the
intellectual innovation with graduate teaching where the emphasis
is on working at the cutting edge, continually constructing new
course material, and passing it on to graduate students. That's
a very different function than undergraduate teaching, where there's
no question about knowing the material but the question is whether
you can get the students to understand it.
Regents professor of mechanical engineering at Texas A&M Universityand
former ASEE presidentsays engineering has a built-in advantage
in the battle to stay focused and current. The profession
is very technological, and things are changing so rapidly that
as advances come about, you have to learn how to use those tools
effectively, says Weese.
by the rule of a mentor at Columbia University who suggested that
engineering professors take a calculated look at their careers
every seven years to assess the value of a sabbatical or a move
into a newer, emerging field. How-tos are easy to come by,
says Weese. Reach down, grab your bootstraps and yank like
teaching is really about telling stories. Maybe engineers
feel that's kind of fluff, he says. But stories
provide structure and students find the information easier to
remember. One of the great things about being older is you have
more stories.'' Pearsall has an adage for staying on
top of your game. Project yourself 20 years into the future,
says the last line in the outline he provides for successful teaching.
How do you want to be remembered? Chances are, if
you were a good professor at 40, you'll be great at 90.
Linda Creighton is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.
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