Prism Magazine - Novmber 2001
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Improving With Age

University administrators are figuring out how to balance the benefits of experience provided by older faculty members with the occasional need to help them remain innovative and exciting in their classrooms.

- By Linda Creighton

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 older—up from barely 25 percent a decade ago.

And since 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 Boom generation.

artWhen 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 effects—confronting the opportunity and obligation of virtual lifetime employment.

University 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 classrooms—particularly 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.

“Most 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.

The workload 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.

Stine says 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.”

Along with 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 Austin—and 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 faculty—about 20 of them from the engineering school—discussing topics such as teaching problem solving, philosophies of grading, leading discussions, and lecturing more effectively.

Particularly 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.

Still, a 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.”

Age, however, 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.

Pearsall says that the same approach that makes a good engineer makes a good teacher. “Avoid tunnel vision—designing 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.”


Stumbling Strategy

Pearsall 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.

Another suggestion 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.”

Getting bogged down in stale research can dull a professor's performance. Pearsall found that his expertise—failure 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 grant.

Jack Kerrebrock, 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.”

Some professors 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 year—five years after his formal retirement. “For elderly faculty—I guess I'm one of those—it'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.”

John Weese, Regents professor of mechanical engineering at Texas A&M University—and former ASEE president—says 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.

Weese lives 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 the devil.”

For Pearsall, 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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