3 Teaching Tips For Marginalized Faculty Members

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Dr. Chavella T. Pittman is the owner of Effective & Efficient Faculty, a company that works with faculty members and higher education institutions across the country to help them develop strategies for inclusive college classrooms and efficient teaching, and for documenting teaching effectiveness for tenure and promotion reviews. (Contact her at chavella@effectivefaculty.org.)

As a faculty development coach, I get to meet and talk with professors across the United States. Recently, I noticed a theme in those conversations, especially from faculty members with marginalized statuses (race, gender, language of origin, sexual orientation, religion and so on). Folks typically dread returning to the classroom in the fall.

Who can blame them? Their teaching experiences have been marred by challenges that are unfortunately more likely to occur to and impact marginalized faculty, including:

  • Teaching overload (formally or informally) with little time for much else.
  • Inappropriate student challenges to their scholarship, legitimacy or authority.
  • Student rating/evaluation scores and comments that are uneven, negative or biased.

While I usually help faculty members with the above issues through coaching or in campus workshops, the suggestions below should go a long way toward setting faculty up for more success and less stress for their next round of teaching.

Teach efficiently by reducing course topics. Inequality in higher education poses several challenges to the efficient teaching of faculty members with marginalized statuses: lack of mentoring for efficient teaching; colleague and student challenges to their academic legitimacy leading to overpreparation for teaching; and teaching assignments with higher loads, larger classes, more new preparations and more service courses. For those reasons, it is essential that marginalized faculty practice efficient teaching to ensure they have the time and energy for other academic or personal goals.

The starting point for teaching efficiently is an examination of the course topics. In my coaching work to help people streamline their courses, I find that many faculty members attempt to teach too much material. Instead of an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach, you should focus course material using these brainstorm prompts for student learning goals:

  • Key concepts?
  • Theories/theorists?
  • Classic or contemporary works?
  • Necessary skill competencies?
  • Controversies in the field?

The results of this quick brainstorm are the essential topics in the course.

Teaching too much material does a disservice to both students and faculty members. Students can only learn a reasonable amount of information. Similarly, faculty can only prepare, teach and assess a reasonable amount of information. Using this perspective, faculty members are not shortchanging students when they enhance their ability to learn the core and essential disciplinary material by reducing the course content.

Want to scale back a little at a time? Leave the material cut via the brainstorm in the syllabus as supplementary readings, an extra-credit assignment, options for a course unit whose topic is decided by students or a possible research/project/paper topic. Faculty members can also use the additional course topics to pitch or design a new “advanced” version of the original course.

Establish and use a classroom behavior policy. Increasingly, some students behave in the classroom in ways that disrupt both the learning environment for students and a healthy workplace environment for faculty members. Unfortunately, faculty members with marginalized statuses are more frequently the targets of such behavior. Thus, it is even more important for them to enact strategies for dealing with the student incivilities that would otherwise detract from their time and energy.

To prevent and respond to student incivilities, a classroom behavior policy should include at least: 1) an illustrative list of behaviors that are encouraged and discouraged, and 2) a statement of possible levels of response (from a faculty member, department chair, dean of students) and outcomes (such as a warning, a document in the student’s file, dismissal from the course or university). In addition, faculty members have to use the policy via a beginning-of-term introduction of its purpose (i.e., to support a learning environment that is beneficial for everyone) and by regularly referring to and enacting it if student disruptions occur. Here are some ideas and examples.

Faculty should clearly communicate expectations for student behavior, as it is a best practice for classroom management. A faculty member’s policy can use the tone and naming (e.g., guidelines, ground rules, expectations) that fit their teaching style and/or institutional context. By establishing a policy that is reified through modeling, reminders and enactment, faculty members aid students in understanding the behaviors that are conducive to and that detract from their learning. They also remove ambiguity for students who may be new to a college environment and provide boundaries for students who mistakenly perceive the college classroom as a place for free-for-all sorts of behaviors.

Feeling resistant to the idea of a classroom behavior policy? Which sounds better: a classroom where both student learning and academic freedom are protected through a proactive strategy for responding to potential student disruptions and incivilities, or a classroom where faculty are stressed and unprepared for inappropriate student challenges, especially those that target faculty members with marginalized statuses?

Collect and analyze data on student learning. Faculty members often use my coaching services to help make sense of their student teaching evaluations. The student evaluations of my clients with marginalized statuses, in particular, provide contradictory student perspectives in the same class, present seemingly biased comments and often do not reflect reality. Their comments are in line with the research that suggests patterns of negative student bias against these faculty members. Without engaging in the lively debate about their usefulness (see here and here), I instead highlight that student evaluations should not be equated with student learning or teaching effectiveness.

We should use multiple measures to assess teaching effectiveness. One place where faculty might begin is collecting and summarizing qualitative and quantitative data about student learning in their courses. This could be simply accomplished through the use of a short pre- and post-test quiz to measure student learning after a class session or two on a specific concept. Or it could be a single item (with quantitative and/or qualitative response options) that asks students to fill in the blank: “I have learned new facts/theories/concepts about (insert specific theory, course topic, discipline, etc.).” Here are additional ideas for student learning evaluation items. Alternatively, faculty members can summarize student learning evidenced by changes between the first and final drafts of student submissions for assignments that already exist in the course.

Faculty members frequently give feedback to and assess students’ work to aid their learning. They should similarly analyze existing assignments or collect additional student learning data to reflect upon and improve their teaching quality. Indeed, doing so is a core component of the teaching portfolio, which serves primarily to help faculty members reflect upon, improve and document their teaching. You should be proactive and assemble that data to ensure student learning goals are being achieved by the course. Such data can also be useful if something is off with the student teaching evaluations.

The practice of summarizing or collecting data on student learning is in line with best practices. As Nancy Van Note Chism writes in Peer Review of Teaching: A Sourcebook, the evaluation of teaching for personnel decision should be multidimensional: it should include evidence from multiple sources and of various kinds (e.g., student learning data). And while teaching effectiveness is conceptualized in myriad ways, faculty members should be able to talk concisely about the evidence of student learning in their courses.

The above suggestions are quick best practices for common teaching issues that marginalized faculty are likely to face. My clients have used them to teach more efficiently, allowing more time to engage in research or leisure, create classrooms with less student incivility and stress, and gather teaching quality evidence used in successful tenure reviews. I hope that faculty members with marginalized statuses are able to similarly and easily enact and reap the benefits of these suggestions.