Why Struggle is Good for Higher Education
By Martijn de Valk, CC-BY-NC

This month, I had the pleasure to participate in two sessions at two different conferences that investigated how teaching with technology is impacting the faculty role. Today is my first day back at my home office in more than two weeks. I have a heap of items on my to-do list, but I find myself thinking deeply about these conversations. 

The first session I participated in was titled Conflicted Identities: Reconsidering the Roles of Faculty at the New Media Consortium in Washington, D.C. This is a session I presented with Jill Leafstedt, a colleague of mine at CSU Channel Islands.  The presentation was a formal opportunity for us to share the early findings in a broader research study we are conducting with Jaimie Hoffman, also a colleague of mine (currently transitioning into a faculty role at USC).  The three of us have been deeply transformed by technology. Please explore the presentation above to examine the findings of our small, introductory study. More will be shared in the near future.

The second session was “How Teaching Online Changed Me.” This was a panel I moderated at the Online Teaching Conference in San Diego. Participants on the panel included Lori Rusch, Lene Whitley-Putz, Mike Smedshammer, and Nita Gopal. All panelists are faculty in California’s community college system (Lori also teaches in the CSU system and Lene teaches in the UC system as well). This panel was not archived, unfortunately, but some compelling themes surfaced in our conversation.

The stories shared by Lori and Lene, the two part-time faculty on the panel, unveil organizational tensions that, I believe, are key to organizational change. Tensions are symptoms of boundaries that are being challenged. When boundaries in an organization are challenged, stake holders often defend their traditions. Part-timers, as one audience member shared, believe that speaking up is the equivalent of “career suicide.” In the California Community College (CCC) system, there are more than 70,000 faculty members and the majority of them are part-time. Contrary to popular viewpoints about part-time faculty, I believe our greatest pedagogical innovators lie in this demographic. These are the individuals who are most likely to push themselves outside their comfort zones and ensure they stand apart from other faculty. They’re also the faculty who feel they have no voice on campus, the faculty who commonly work full-time in another role outside of teaching, and teach at multiple institutions (in multiple Learning Management Systems).

Like the faculty who participated in our study and the panel, my professional role has been changed by technology.  I see evidence that more faculty in higher education are experiencing the type of transformation that I experienced (and continue to experience).  

I began my higher education career as a part-time art history instructor at a California community college in 1999. In 2002, I was hired into a full-time, tenured-track position at the same college. I felt as if I had won the lottery — not financially (as I was taking a 40% paycut from a corporate role to begin my teaching position), but statistically. I truly believed I would never leave that position. When I started teaching online in 2003, everything began to change for me. I experienced a growing intrinsic desire to explore online learning beyond what I was able to do in my full-time faculty role, which restricted me to teaching two online classes each semester (out of my full load of 5 classes).

In short, I grew into a different role and it was one that did not fit into the future plans of my institution. I left that full-time (yes, tenured) faculty role in 2009 for a director position at a 4-year university. I had hopes that this would be an opportunity to support online faculty and contribute to a an emerging conversation in higher education. I relocated my family for this position too. My boys were in first and third grade at the time and anyone who knows me understands that this is not a decision I take lightly. That position I took did not turn out as I had expected. I resigned after seven months. While some perceived these choices as stupid or reckless, I made them to keep challenging myself and continue to explore the meaning of this new, obscure passion I had growing inside me.

After my resignation from my full-time, tenured position in 2009, I went down a dark, scary 5-year path that was riddled with corners I could not see around, dazzling peaks of excitement, and low points that made me wonder if I would ever be happy again.  I had conversations with everyone I knew and anyone I was referred to. I blogged and Tweeted a lot. I grew my Professional Learning Network (PLN). I created jobs for myself.  These included blogging monthly for Cisco Systems’ GETIdeas network (now defunct). I negotiated a consulting position with VoiceThread to coordinate a monthly higher ed webinar series. I had multiple roles in the @ONE organization, including teaching online faculty development courses and coordinating their new Online Teaching Certification Program. I wrote my first book, Best Practices for Teaching with Emerging Technologies — which was an opportunity extended to me by Susan Ko as a result of her reading my blog. I began teaching online as a part-time faculty at a California community college. I presented keynotes at faculty-related events and was hired to do various types of projects at CSU Channel Islands.

I also unsuccessfully applied for a couple of full-time positions at community colleges during this time.  One of them was actually the position I resigned from in 2009. Today, I understand that would not have been happy returning to that position. But, at the time, I felt isolated and craved to be part of a campus community again. I also enrolled in a doctoral program (which I just completed last week!) and for a brief period of time I was in a corporate position, which made me see how important teaching and learning is to me.

Those five years were exhausting and I hope I don’t need to experience them again. Yet, I now know I can be successful without the support of an institution. I also feel that my career progression is likely to be more similar to that of a new college graduate today. My experiences help me relate to students today and help me to see how disconnected the skills students acquire in higher education are from the skills they will need to succeed after college.

This period of struggle was necessary for me to grow and understand what my strengths and passions were. The hardest part, I think, was looking at the titles and job descriptions available at higher education institutions (particularly in California). None of them aligned with my strengths, my interests, or my experiences. I felt like I’d never find a home in higher education again. I see correlations with this struggle and the experiences of part-time faculty that are fascinating to me.

As “innovation” continues to be the latest buzz word in higher education, perhaps we should ask ourselves if we are experiencing enough struggle.  If you feel conflicted, is it a symptom of a desire to change into new role that is not supported by your institution? How can institutions create cultures that value those who want to change, as opposed to reward those who defend the status quo? A specific example may be an institution that supports faculty who want teach in the open web, as opposed to requiring all course-related activities to be locked inside an LMS.  Creating value around new approaches in teaching and learning leads a campus into difficult, messy, and necessary  conversations about student privacy, accessibility, and faculty/student support — as opposed to turning away from them.  We need foster a culture that fosters difficult conversations to address the tensions surfacing throughout higher education today.  And struggle is the catalyst that inspires these conversations.

Today, I am happy again. 🙂 I have found a home at CSU Channel Islands with a team of creative, innovative thinkers who think outside the box and make decisions with the interests of students in mind. I work remotely from my home-office and focus my efforts on supporting the growing culture of teaching and learning innovation at CSU Channel Islands. Primarly, I support the professional growth and development of Channel Islands faculty who are preparing to teach or currently teach online. I know my transformation is not over — in fact, I no longer view it as a transformation. Instead, I understand that I am a lifelong learner who relishes the emerging frontier of higher education. I am a passionate advocate for improving higher education through technology to ensure students enter today’s global, mobile society with the skills they need to be successful.

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